WASHINGTON (AP) — New Speaker Mike Johnson finds himself leading House Republicans with a majority in name only.
Unable to unite his unruly right flank and commanding one of the slimmest House majorities in history, Johnson is being forced to rely on Democrats for the basics of governing, including the latest bill to prevent a federal shutdown.
Approaching his first 100 days on the job, Johnson faces daunting choices ahead. He can try to corral conservatives, who are pushing rightward in endless hours of closed-door meetings, to work together as a team. Or he can keep reaching out to Democrats for a bipartisan coalition to pass compromise legislation.
So far, rather than the speaker of a dysfunctional GOP majority, Johnson, R-La., has shown he is willing to compile a rare, large supermajority of Democrats and Republicans to get things done with Democratic President Joe Biden.
And that supermajority is exactly what some in Congress want, but others fear is coming.
“Everyone understands the reality of where we are,” Johnson said at a weekly news conference.
“The House Republicans have the second-smallest majority in history,” he said. “We’re not going to get everything that we want. But we’re going to stick to our core conservative principles.”
Johnson is about as conservative as they come in Washington. He’s a “movement” conservative steeped in Christian beliefs who made his way from Louisiana working in the trenches of hard-right social policy, particularly against abortion, gay rights and other issues.
For now, the far-right forces that ousted Johnson’s predecessor, former Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, from the speaker’s office, are allowing a grace period. They are frustrated by Johnson’s reluctance to take dramatic action such as a government shutdown to win their priorities. But they are heartened that at least Johnson is forthcoming with them.
But the hard-line Republicans are watching and waiting — any single lawmaker can file a motion for a vote to oust the speaker — especially as Johnson confronts the challenges ahead on government spending, U.S. border security and wars in Ukraine and Gaza.
“It’s a loss for the American people to join hands with Democrats to form a governing coalition,” said Virginia Rep. Bob Good, the newly elected chairman of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus, after last week’s vote to keep government running.
Good complained that passage of the short-term spending bill, which Biden signed into law before the Friday midnight deadline, was “a failure.”
Johnson will confront another shutdown threat March 1 when some of the temporary funding again runs out.
More immediately, Johnson and House Republicans are warily watching Senate negotiations over an immigration and border security package designed to reduce the record flow of migrants and expedite the deportations of some of those who have already entered the United States illegally.
Biden is considering the emerging border deal as part of his broader $110 billion national security package, which has grown urgent as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s forces need to replenish weaponry in their fight against Russia’s invasion.
But such a deal swapping border policy for Ukraine aid could be politically devastating for Johnson, whose Trump-aligned Republicans want an even harder line against the migrants at the U.S-Mexico border and a more isolationist approach to U.S. foreign policy that rejects Ukraine aid.
Biden hosted congressional leaders at the White House this past week, surrounding the new speaker with prominent and influential voices, including the chairmen of the national security committees, to impress on Johnson the weight of the challenges ahead.
It put the speaker in a central seat of U.S. power.
The top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, spoke up at one point during the White House meeting. He made a pitch to Johnson.
“The argument I made to him was, ‘You know, the border is not going to be ‘solved,’” Smith recalled.
Smith told Johnson there is no “magic piece of legislation” that will suddenly end the countless numbers of migrants pouring northward.
“But we can make it better,” Smith said.
“So make it better,” Smith went on. “And I said, ‘You know, politically, you are still going to be in a position to bash Democrats on the border. That’s not going away.’”
Smith added, “So why don’t you do something good for the border, do something good for Ukraine, and you still got your politics. And it’s a win, win win.”
And Johnson’s response?
“He didn’t say anything,” Smith said.
Hovering over Johnson’s speakership is Trump, the former president who elevated McCarthy to the speakership but then did not save him from removal. Trump is now the party’s front-runner for the presidential nomination in 2024 to challenge Biden for the White House.
Johnson and Trump talk often, but some of Trump’s strongest allies in the House are those conservatives pushing the speaker rightward and denying him a governing majority.
Trump signaled his skepticism of the emerging border deal but also his trust, for now, in the speaker’s ability to drive the hardest bargain possible for Republicans.
In many ways, Johnson finds himself living day to day, much the way McCarthy was, trying to keep Congress functioning, and hold on to his job.
“Speaker Johnson is in a 24-hour survival mode,” said Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, a key Democratic negotiator on the border package. “He needs to say whatever he needs to say in order to survive Wednesday to Thursday, and Thursday to Friday.”
The vote late last week to prevent a shutdown exposed the limits of Johnson’s grasp on his majority.
Republicans control the House by just a few seats, 220-213. That number will drop over the weekend, when one of the many lawmakers who have already announced their retirements leaves early. Absences, illnesses and weather delays trim the numbers further.
When voting was underway, 107 Republicans were voting against the temporary spending bill and 106 voted for it, which would have been a politically embarrassing outcome if not even a majority of Johnson’s majority was on board.
By the time the gavel struck closing the voting, the bill was overwhelmingly approved, with Democrats and Republicans, 314-108. The final tally was 107 Republicans in favor of the bill, 106 Republicans against.
“He’s doing the best he can,” said Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and a failed rival for the speaker’s gavel. “Mike’s a good guy, a friend, and it’s a tough position but he’s doing the best he can.”